Directed by Fruit Chan (Dumplings), Chan-Wook Park (Cut), and Takashi Miike (Box), 2004, 125 minutes, starring Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Ka-Fai Leung, Lee Byung-hun, Lim Won-Hee, Kyoko Hasegawa, and Atsuro Watabe.
In 2002 the seminal "anthology" film Three debuted to Asian cinemas across the continent. It featured three filmmakers from three separate nations in their attempts to showcase Asian horror. Successful on many levels, it spawned its own anthology sequel, this time showcasing the very precept upon which Snowblood Apple rests – "extreme" cinema. Three... Extremes is a compilation piece that is comprised of East Asia's most ambitious directors. With one hailing from each major film capital in the region, the film showcases the brilliance of horror in Japan, Hong Kong , and Korea - by way of Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan, and Chan-Wook Park (respectively). Since I myself am a fan of Asian filmmaking regardless of the nation or culture of origin, I feel privileged in my review of all three of these incredibly talented directors, presented her in one easily enjoyed sitting.
As with most anthology series, each story has its own level of depth, suspense, character, and (most important, in my opinion, amongst Asian films) dignity. But unlike other anthologies, each story has its own respective director at the helm. As such, each director goes off in wildly ambitious directions, with mixed results. While each film is deserving of the title "extreme", of the offerings presented it's clear there is definitively a first, second, and third place winner in the race to make the most interesting, compact, and enjoyably understood short film. While I myself refuse to lay out an opinion on which is "the best" among the three directors presented, I can easily say that I feel as though this is one of the best ideas to have been spawned from Asia's cinematic center in some time, and despite my own preferences for each short film (or lack thereof), I recommend Three... Extremes on every single level.
Dumplings: I know little of Fruit Chan's back catalogue as a director, but to say that I was overwhelmed by the quality of Dumplings would be an understatement. Set in a generic looking area of Hong Kong , the film opens with the shot of a singular figure stepping out of a cab. The lone woman is Mrs. Lee (played subtly and with total class by Miriam Yeung), an upper-class socialite/former actress whose life is in a rut. She precariously walks around the impoverished apartment complex in perfectly pointed stilettos and Jackie Onassis sunglasses, moving seamlessly amidst the common folk that surround her. She rises several floors and knocks on the door of Mei (Bai Ling, in a performance that nearly made me forget her exploits since landing on American shores a few years ago!).
Mei, a cook who works out of her own apartment and feigns that all the residents call her "Aunt" Mei (and with good reason), is famous for her incredible dumplings. No ordinary dish, these dumplings, prepared in any number of ornate and beautiful ways, are capable of the impossible: restoring youth to those who consume its contents. An extraordinary feat in its own right, these dumplings possess good energy for the restoration of the soul by restoring a woman's exterior "by use of what's within". What that entails, and the final deliverance of that need for eternal youthfulness, is the basis for the story that follows.
With various running themes of betrayal, revenge, and desperation, Dumplings is a precise piece of art that works almost perfectly. Its extremely coherent (if rather simple) narrative is easily digestible (pardon the pun) and richly rewarding. The acting is impeccable (as is Miriam Yeung's wardrobe, though the same cannot be said about Ms. Ling's apparel), and the overall delivery of the story, with its thoughtful pace and rich use of color, made it, for me, the story that most merited repeat viewings. With several stories moving at once (including the tragic tale of a young girl and her stepmother's attempts at both repair and, ultimately, revenge), the film is a relaxed, recumbent story that is perfect for lazy afternoon viewing. A tasty treat (again, pardon the godawful pun) with an ending that is both tasteful and tasteless all at once, Dumplings is the perfect kind of sampling to make me hungry (here we go again) for more Fruit (Chan, that is). Zinger! I'm hilarious.
An aside: There is a longer version of Dumplings that Fruit Chan released theatrically apart from the version seen in Three... Extremes. That version, which expands the original films forty-odd minute story to nearly an hour and a half, is a gem in and of itself. Lovely as a story, it expands on the original short's strengths, and adds layers of detail to an already complex work of fiction (one scene in particular involving a brutal betrayal between Aunt Mei and Mr. Lee especially adds to the film's grim conclusion). With a completely alternate ending and a more complex and multidimensional style of story-telling, the extended version of Dumplings is, like Three... Extremes, a highly recommended addition to any extreme Asian film collection.
Cut: I'll be upfront - I generally have great hesitation of Chan-Wook Park's various art pieces (as a writer, director, and producer, which is no easy feat, I'll contend). It's not that I think he's a bad filmmaker by any means (and my ambivalent feelings towards Oldboy have no standing in my judgment of his other seemingly well-made films), but I for one have never been able to engross myself in Korean horror cinema as a whole. A Japanophile since childhood, I easily love a great deal of the cinema I see from that nation. And my endearment to Hong Kong cinema came during my teenage years from a dear friend of my grandmother's who was Cantonese and was able to help me through a lot of the subtle nuances (and often times, the inside jokes) presented in the films I saw. But Korean cinema is like Canada to me - it's something that seems really appealing, but without a lot of evidence to go by, I'm just not sure if that's an honest assumption or wishful thinking.
Cut to... well, Cut, Chan-Wook Park 's little cinematic snippet that is sandwiched into Three... Extremes. The story of a hot young director (played up with boyish charm by Korean heart-throb Byung-hun Lee) who is at the top of his game only to become trapped in one, Cut starts off with a frightening bang. Kidnapped by a former extra whom the director had "forgotten" (as though he ever had a responsibility to remember this berserk figure anyway), the initial darkness is quickly squashed by the ensuing hilarity and schizophrenic pace. Waking up in the set for his current film (which is, in itself, an exact to-scale recreation of his own home from which he was snatched), the director finds his wife elaborately attached to a piano by an intricate system of what must only be piano wires. An accomplished pianist herself, she finds her fingers torturously glued to the keys. With a madman in control of every moment within this small, perverse creation, the young director is given a series of ultimatums that he can't possibly live up to. Or can he...? (cue sinister piano music here)
Despite an initially chilling scene involving the kidnapper and a blow-torch, Cut loses its momentum quickly. Shifting between comedy, gore, and mild horror (and not seamlessly at all, mind you), Chan-Wook Park never really delivers what is initially offered as a horror-piece. It's an interesting piece of fiction, no doubt, but as for being "extreme", well, that only comes in the form of grisly disembodiment, which is nothing most viewers of the genre haven't seen before. The acting is moderate at best, but Won-hie Lim's overacting borders on shrill absurdity rather than satire, while Hye-jeong Kang is a modest, if mildly annoying, damsel-in-distress (though this could very well have been the intention of the director). And with an ultimately unsatisfying ending (I'm hesitant to call it a copout, but it's definitely in that realm), it's hard to enjoy the story in its entirety. While a competent film at the end of the day (and one which seems to be the most-liked among those who are "extreme" aficionados), Cut just doesn't, in the end, make the cut. Aren't I punny? No? Um, alright then.
Box: Oh Takashi Miike, you trickster! Box, released during one of Miike's slow years (it was one of only four releases he made in 2004), is one of those rare gems that viewers never expect or see coming. Neither great nor awful, it's one of those unusual little capsules of a story that has made the director so famed in his homeland and abroad. Centering on a struggling and despondent young writer named Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), the story moves less like a coherent film and more like a series of arthouse-images, which is not, for all accounts and purposes, a bad thing at all.
Bouncing endlessly between present and flashback, Kyoko struggles to come to grips with a grim tragedy that befell her during her youth. There are scenes of jealousy between herself and her twin sister, young ballet-esque theatrical performers. Their stage is within an isolated tent in the middle of a snowy, desolate filed maintained by an unnamed circus member (Mitsuru Akaboshi) with a penchant for love that is ripe with taboo. And then there are the mysterious boxes, both in that haunted memory of the field, and in the present, that plague the happiness of Kyoko as she ricochets between the two.
Although it's not uncommon for me to say that I didn't know what the hell was going on in a Miike film, this is a case where that application works towards the film's favor rather than against it. Box isn't a narrative so much as a lush, claustrophobic dream, played out on film. And while the ending is, in itself, less than two minutes and completely confusing, it's one that grows on the viewer. Is that shot a literal depiction of some subtle or confusing story we're missing? Or is it a deliberate visual reference to the philosophical guilt one woman feels for a childhood mistake that continues to haunt her, and any of her attempts at happiness or love, to this day? Well, of course, I'm not going to tell you, silly.
These short films collectively are an ambitious, well-conceived, beautifully presented example of what can be achieved when a director is allowed to present a completely original concept around a common theme, without censorship or meddling studio hands to muck things up. While most if not every frame presented shows an original and new spin on the term "horror", these films present an elegance that surpasses one singular, often cheaply-perceived genre. Each director has his strength: for Fruit Chan, a strong narrative and a coherent and intriguing plotline; for Chan-Wook Park , a macabre new version of the classic guts and gore mystery; and for Takashi Miike, it's a surprisingly sympathetic, subtle, and thoughtful philosophical work that is as heavy on the eyes as it is on the viewer's emotions. I'm deathly allergic to hype (and shellfish), but I implore anyone who considers themselves an aficionado of Asian cinema to at least give Three... Extremes a rent if nothing else. It's an absolutely near-perfect introduction to the strengths (and even the weaknesses) of this beautiful region's artistic talent.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Violence: 5/10 (although Cut takes credit for most of it)
Takashi Miike: couldn't have made a faster ending if he wanted to
Socialites: make the best black-market customers
Bai Ling: fully clothed and nearly sane, BELIEVE IT OR NOT PEOPLE!
Films in a Similar Style: Three, obviously.
*** Highly recommended ***
Three Extremes Wallpaper
please note: the actual papers do not have the Snowblood Apple logo on them.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpapers credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.threeextremes.com/ - the official Lions Gate website for Three... Extremes, which gives a sampling of each film, and snippets of its soundtrack
http://www.lionsgatefilms.com/index_flash.php – the (not particularly easy to navigate) Lions Gate site, which recently released a special 2-disc version of Three... Extremes that includes the extended version of Dumplings
http://www.apple.com/trailers/lions_gate/threeextremes/ - the Apple trailer of the film
http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews/three_extremes_dumplings.htm – a lovely review of the extended Dumplings film by Love HK Film
http://filmcritic.com/misc/emporium.nsf/...ment – an unbiased review of all three shorts that is both appealing and informative
http://www.beyondhollywood.com/reviews/threeextremes.htm - superb review of the alternate version of Three... Extremes (whereas the films are presented in a completely different order)
http://gofugyourself.typepad.com/go_fug_yourself/bai_ling/index.html – a trashy tabloid site that shows Bai Ling being crazy, which further reinforces just how quality her role in Dumplings is - and how crazy she really is